By William Trevor
213 pp. Viking. $26.
William Trevor writes both long and short. Though acclaimed for each, it is for the briefer art that he is especially valued. The novel in its spaciousness allows world enough and time for epochs to evolve, but the short story must seize in its thimble, all at once, crisis and its crux. And while the novel weakens under too much embroidery, the short story is a virtuoso’s arena — exemplified, say, by those two radically disparate suicides, Stefan Zweig and David Foster Wallace, the one sickened by Hitler’s Europe (“The Royal Game”), the other fevered by corporate America (“Mr. Squishy”). Virtuosity’s sentence-making is thickened, intricate, imbricated, often dazzling. And eventually, because of the nihilist pressure of the unstoppable gush of language itself, cynical to the point of despair.
All the foregoing is recognizably trite lit-crit sagacity. Trevor stands apart from all that. His stories are uncontaminated by principles of composition, or even by respectable generalities touching on how sentences ought to be made. His sentences are frequently in the passive voice; his verbs eschew the pursuit of energy. Overall, his prose is serviceable and ready to hand. He will supply an entire menu, including its every ingredient. If there are flowers in pots on a windowsill or in someone’s small garden, he will patiently identify each one. He records the names of streets and neighborhoods, of restaurants and pubs. He tells minutely how women and men are dressed, the color, the cloth, the fit.
Most notably, his stories open with comments so blandly informational, so plain and unnoticeable, that they arouse no expectation and appear to promise little. What might come of “On a stretch of pavement between Truman’s Corner and Boswell’s Hotel a man asked a child if she knew where St. Ardo’s was”? What magnetic draw may lurk in “‘Yes?’ Olivia says on the answering system when the doorbell rings in the middle of ‘The Return of the Thin Man’”? Yet such flat and unhurried beginnings are subversions concealing a powerful slyness. Trevor’s stories traffic in plots, fated or willed, and hurtful. They may be coiled in pity, but they are never benign; their pity is unregenerative. Nor do they carry broad social vistas or axes to grind or hidden symbols: no Golden Bowls or Hawthornean birthmarks. Here you will experience no flashes of culminating revelation, none of those so-called epiphanies that decorate the endings of so many workshop products. Of the 10 collected in “Last Stories,” six spiral out of the minds of women. Their names are Anita, Rosanne, Claire, Harriet, Olivia, Mary Bella, and more: how ordinary they are, how usual for their place and time. Irish names; English names.
“Last Stories”? The title itself merits an observation, and not only as an aside. Trevor, born and educated in Ireland, died in England in 2016 at 88, in a halo of fame. According to Martin Amis, who worries at this bone repeatedly, a writer in old age will naturally grow slack, and Philip Roth, in choosing retirement (a business term that hangs awkwardly on the shoulders of writers), offers personal testimony to the same supposition. Still, in this small, final, seemingly quiet but ultimately volcanic book of stories, Trevor denies and defies — maybe spites — the promise of decline. As for volcanic: his people, at the finish of each turning of circumstance, are stunned and stilled, like the molds lava once made of the victims of Pompeii. And it is as if he will never run out of plots; plots are everywhere, in the shops, in the streets, in the cafes, at the teller’s counter in the bank, in the city, on the farm; in every human breast.
For Trevor — and this could be his secret engine — plot is feeling: one and the same. Most often his women are the plot, because it is the women who act from feeling, while the men act from impulse. (Don’t fashionably surmise that this is an expression of gender ideology. Trevor has no ideology.) When, in “Making Conversation,” Olivia reluctantly answers the doorbell and lets in a distraught Mrs. Vinnicombe, she is instantly accused: “Is my husband there?” He is not, though he has been there, only once, to install one of the kitchen gadgets he invents and sells — a subterfuge to be near the woman who captivates him. They had met on the street when Olivia tripped and fell, grateful for his care; but afterward he was in a fever to pursue her. Impatient with his insistence, she warned him to keep away. Another time, to appease him, she went with him to a restaurant, and that was all. And now here in her living room sits the weeping Mrs. Vinnicombe, mother of two adolescent sons, newly deserted by her husband, devastated by jealousy. Olivia remembers a jealous seizure of her own, long ago in her teens — how she was besotted with her sister’s bridegroom and dared to touch his cap, the part of it that warmed his hair and made her wish she could die. This old and fleeting fragment slips in from nowhere, to drip its poison; such subtle intrusions are Trevor’s way. In the end we are left with a web of unhealed inferences, the lava of guilt and grief slowly covering both women.
Husbands abruptly departing from wives out of a desire for other women appear in two more stories, and here again, undermining expectation (in and out of fiction), it is not the wayward men but the two women in combination — the original and her replacement — who are the levers of events and their meanings. In a third abandoned marriage, the determined wife flees, the mourning husband is shattered. All loss is akin to other loss; loss begets loss, and loss leads to desolation. The briefest story in this panoply of blows, “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil,” concerns absence of a different nature. In her solitary 50s, after years of enduring indifferent pupils, Miss Nightingale is blissfully charged with a child who strikes her as a prodigy: “Within this small boy, so modest in his manner, there were symphonies unwritten, suites and concertos and oratorios. She could tell; she didn’t even have to think.” He was the boy who “sat down at her piano and took her with him into paradise.” Her house, inherited from her father, with its crowded legacies of toy soldiers and photographs and watercolors and china swans and chocolate molds and painted vases, is thrillingly transfigured when her silent pupil arrives on Friday afternoons. But when Miss Nightingale discovers that the boy is a furtive thief, light-fingered and deft, making away each week with another small treasure, the whole of her history, and its loyalties and loves, flies apart. Everything she trusted before, she no longer believes in — except the boy himself, even when he has become a man. Does genius absolve treachery? In this miniature Faustian bargain, Trevor takes us not so much by surprise as by … well, call it horror.
And so they suffer and breathe, this procession of living women and men, alive by virtue of their longings and their defeats and their schemes and their truncated hopes. Many look for purpose in the world, even as the winds of contingency lash: the picture-restorer whose memory is broken, the cartographer drawn to the Yorkshire moors, Miss Nightingale’s father, chocolatier and collector, a pair of vagabond house painters, the crippled man who hires them, the nearly forgotten young woman who cleans houses and knows more than is imagined, a schoolgirl and the enraptured visitors who claim her, the eagerly respectable widow found dead on a pile of rubbish in an alley. And somehow in all these crooked lives, there runs a tangled thread of right measure, of keeping faith — but with what? In the very last paragraph (I almost want to call it a stanza) of “Last Stories,” Trevor sums up “this flimsy exercise in assumption and surmise. … Shakily challenging the apparent, the almost certain, its suppositions were vague, inchoate.” Then he has his character, whose redolent name is Cecilia, reach out “for their whisper of consoling doubt.” This truthfulness of fragility is William Trevor’s credo. It is why we honor him as the supreme master of his honest art.
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